Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Aiming to crack down on counterfeit software, Microsoft plans later this year to require customers to verify that their copy of Windows is genuine before downloading security patches and other add-ons to the operating system.
Since last fall the company has been testing a tool that can check whether a particular version of Windows is legitimate, but until now the checks have been voluntary. Starting Feb. 7, the verification will be mandatory for many downloads for people in three countries: China, Norway and the Czech Republic.
In those countries, people whose copies are found not to be legitimate can get a discount on a genuine copy of Windows, though the price varies from $10 to $150 depending on the country.
By the middle of this year, Microsoft will make the verification mandatory in all countries for both add-on features to Windows as well as for all OS updates, including security patches. Microsoft will continue to allow all people to get Windows updates by turning on the Automatic Update feature within Windows. By doing so, Microsoft hopes it has struck a balance between promoting security and ensuring that people buy genuine versions of Windows.
"We think that the best foundation for the most secure system is genuine software," said David Lazar, director of the Genuine Windows program at Microsoft. "We want to urge all of our customers to use genuine software. (At the same time), we want to make sure that we don't do anything to reduce the likelihood that a user will keep their system up to date."
The program, known as Windows Genuine Advantage, also offers perks to those who verify their copy of Windows. Those who do can get free software as well as discounts on other Microsoft products and services. Microsoft is upping the ante a bit, adding some additional discounts on MSN Games as well as on the company's recently announced Outlook Live subscription service to the existing list of benefits, which includes free access to the company's Photo Story 3 program.
Customers do appear to be interested in double-checking the status of their operating system. Some 8 million people have been asked to participate in the program since testing began, and more than 5 million have taken part.
And those numbers have come with very little recruiting on the part of Microsoft, Lazar said.
"More and more we will be marketing the offers to broaden the participation," he said. "People do like free stuff."
Piracy is a major problem for Microsoft and others in the software industry. One software industry study estimated that more than a third of software is pirated, costing the industry $29 billion a year. Microsoft won't put an exact figure on its losses, but said it is certainly in the billions over the past 10 years.
The validation effort is just part of Microsoft's threefold program, which focuses on educating users, engineering products in ways that minimize piracy, and enforcement through the legal system.
As for the added security risk, Directions on Microsoft analyst Michael Cherry said that people are putting too much of the blame on the software maker.
Cherry said it is not necessarily Microsoft's responsibility to protect people who aren't paying the company for its products. He likened the situation to buying a fake Rolex and then expecting warranty service if the product breaks.
The problem with that analogy, Cherry acknowledged, is that a broken Rolex doesn't put other watch owners at risk, whereas vulnerable computers connected to the Internet threaten all PC users. However, Cherry said that many of the computers that are at risk are using genuine, but older versions of Windows.
"There's a growing chance that the people whose machines are being taken over are running older systems which aren't really securable," he said.
Cherry said he thinks the company is acting appropriately, noting that making sure people are running genuine Windows is important for all customers.
"I think they are entitled to do this, and I think it is in customers' best interest to know that they have a genuine version of the software," he said. Counterfeit copies could contain their own bugs or viruses, and there is no way to guarantee that security patches will work, even if the user can download them, he said.
While Microsoft is the obvious beneficiary if piracy rates go down, Cherry said programs like Genuine Advantage also help level the playing field for smaller computer builders who play by the rules and find themselves undercut by dealers offering PCs with bogus copies of Windows.
"Those are the people I hope the program is helping," Cherry said.